By Lenore Weiss
Working as a writer in the computer industry suited me fine. First I contracted at engineering companies. I moved on to other positions. My role required me to interview software engineers, marketing and business analysts, and to ask questions. Many questions. At the end of each development cycle, there was a new or updated technical manual followed by release notes, use cases, product specification sheets and sometimes even PowerPoint presentations to highlight features.
While these tomes took a significant commitment of time and money, their value were as completed items on a manager’s spreadsheet. “Yeah, we produced that thing.” The reality was that people wanted computers to be easy, intuitive was the word, and so was borne the need for interface design.
I joined a professional organization, Society for Technical Communication, dedicated to people like myself who shuttled between Marketing and IT departments. I learned from my peers. The industry was heading away from the printed page to the online world and I wanted to go there with it.
After my children were grown, I commuted “to the valley,” contracting for Apple Computer. Here was a global company where teams used videoconferencing to develop business requirements. Countless software engineers and program managers lived in the United States for short periods of time, or hop-skipped around the country to fulfill contracts. A mélange of food preferences, language, and culture were synthesized in the name of technology. Team was the operative word. Sort of like hyperlinked people.
At times, I wished I could substitute my creative writing with another more well-paid compulsion. Lawyer? Software engineer? Realtor? I tried on different roles, but they didn’t compute. Instead, I hoped to find peers with similar obsessions about the impact of technology on language.
Language has been bombarded by increased consonant usage on cell phones to save the effort of typing with diminutive keyboards. Acronyms: OMG, LOL, BRB. Hyperlinks, icons, blogs, email, structured programming languages, the constant downpour of information raining on our heads from the Internet. The global world economy. There’s material here.
So how do we respond to these machines, devices, and networks that are increasingly shaping our lives and the way we communicate?
I’m not talking about cell phones and social networking. Or even e-books. I’m talking about the way we use language, our hyperlinked minds or what Sarah Gray calls the “nomad mind.” Multitasking on parallel planes.
“Look at the structure of the Internet, where everything is connected, instead of being hierarchical…The nomad mind is one that moves through different realities and spaces, and feels comfortable in all of them. This is what the contemporary world is all about.”
Last year I visited the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco and saw Evan Bissell’s “The Knotted Line,” a media art project and an educational tool “for the digital generation.” The project began as a dialogue between incarcerated fathers and youth with incarcerated parents, a collaborative discussion inside the nomad mind that spurred creation of the project. Click and expand.
It’s not difficult to find discussions about collaborative writing models.
A recent article in Fast Company magazine by Baratunde Thurston, founder of a comedy and technology company, notes how several new apps allow clipping, linking, sharing and remixing text previously “trapped within bound volumes.” Thurston is excited by the possibilities of networked ideas. But in some way, writers have been doing this for a long time. Journalists work in teams to pull together research from disparate sources to produce the evening news. Authors with big budgets like Elmore Leonard hire teams to help research his next book. Poets work from prompts to come up with myriad responses to the same word or situation. So many artistic productions depend upon people “behind the scenes,” editors, comedy writers, script writers, and yes, technical writers. We’ve been collaborating for a long time.
My new “go-to” place to read about technology and culture is appropriately named, Technoculture, a peer reviewed scholarly annual for technology studies published from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In Volume 2 (2012), Pamela Ingleton of McMaster University has a fascinating article that examines “Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less,” a Penguin novelty book composed by college students Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin, and released in December 2009. The book condenses more than eighty literary works into a series of tweets.
In her discussion, Ingleton acknowledges the dependence of the digital with the print media. After all, Twitterature exists in a print format, a kind of Cliff’s Notes for the information age. Without the book, there are no royalties. Ingleton says:
“The Internet and social media are changing the ways we write and read, as well as the ways we think and talk about writing and reading. Which is not to say that the space between something like the print tradition and digital media is an easy one to solve…or dissolve.”
But what about the actual way we handle language?
There always have been different “schools’ of poetry, Surrealists, Futurists, Modernists, PostModernists, Language poets. Where are the Technologists? It seems to me that rap lyrics come closest to acknowledging what is happening. Read rap artist Jay-Z in Decoded. He uses a combination of art and multimedia to “tell the story of a culture, an art form, a moment in history.”
Sometimes a poet like Harryette Mullen in Sleeping with the Dictionary collaborates with Roget’s Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary. While Roget seems obsessed with categories and hierarchies, the American Heritage, was compiled with the assistance of a African-American poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem. Mullen incorporates word games (acrostic, anagram, homophone, parody, pun), as well as its reflections on the politics of language and dialect. Mullen’s work is also play.
Many years ago, I met poet Walter Lowenfels. What I remember about Walter was his vast generosity and commitment to the word. Walter published my first poem that ended with the line, “this bioluminescence still swimming in the dark.” I was excited by the relationship between science and language. So was Walter. From “Every Poem Is A Love Poem” included in The Portable Walter edited by Robert Gover, International Publishers, 1968:
“I am trying to break through this language to get to
without the copperbelt lining that keeps my hope
from exploding out of this typewriter,
desk, window, through the pines, down the
Little Egg Harbor River, across the
Walter did not have access to computer technology. But he was trying “to break through this language.”
Later I met William Dickey, who was my faculty advisor at San Francisco State University. Bill was enthralled with the possibilities of HyperCard, an application program and programming tool for the Apple MacIntosh released around 1987 that predated the unveiling of the World Wide Web several years later. One of Bill’s last projects before his death in 1994, was a series of HyperCard poems, “Poem Descending a Staircase.” His work is mentioned in “Hypermedia and Literary Studies” edited by Paul Delany and George P. Landow from MIT Press. Bill was fascinated by the fluidity of this new medium. While I am unable to reproduce his experiment here, the following is a quote from “Life Moving More Rapidly Than Hands Can Manage,” from Brief Lives, (The Heyeck Press, 1986).
“…Nevertheless, always, the frames will move
one frame faster than you can visualize.
On your back, in the experimental cubicle
where problems in mathematics are projected on the ceiling,
when you cannot solve the first problem, when time
is ticking loudly by you, your mouth sweet
with saliva gathering, lie.
The machines will know you lied. They will say to one another
on their instantaneous tapes: “He lied.”
If they are feeling generous, they will only note
that fact. Then they will let you advance to the next problem.”
Bill loved technology. His poetry also reflects a discomfort with authority and an artificial intelligence that may come back to mock us á la The Matrix, a movie with Keanu Reaves that debuted in 1999.
Nina Serrano has a different take on technology. Writer and storyteller and co-founder of the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco, Nina is a radio producer at Pacifica Radio Station (94.1 FM) in Berkeley, California and is currently producing an e-book, “Heart’s Journey” that is available on Amazon. Here is an excerpt from “Poems From a Sleepless Night:”
“…My Dear we will be posted at our computers
catching the hem of the skirt
of every passing muse
in the dust of time
in this longest moonshine
brewing an elixir of memory and metaphor
Our fingers will capture it
letter by space bar
Verses sent off by electrical force we don’t understand
Our words bumping into others’ words flying
through cyber space
will create a universe of poetry in cyber clouds
of ever expanding immensity
of ever expanding immensity
becoming finite only in the print-out of pages.”
Nina’s poetry is exuberant with the infinite possibility of an electrical force “we don’t understand,” an elixir that wraps together memory and metaphor.
And here’s my contribution, a poem entitled “WFH” from my manuscript Genghis Code:
“Working from home and raising children, my brain and hands connect across a keyboard. Everything else recedes into the background: a ring tone, a tea kettle, a leaf blower outside my window. Focus on the problem. Not the error.
Somewhere I hear a boy eating a kernel of popcorn on a first-floor landing.
A young girl walks by with an iPod strapped to her upper arm and a Raiders patch on her jeans.
I like how my hands and my brain need each other.
In Israel, the color of a yarmulke is a code
about where you stand along that country’s
divided political line.
On the pond at Leona Canyon,
male and female mallards
Technology is a tool that can be used to foster communication or not, depending upon who is doing the programming. Maybe it will be a group of younger writers growing up with technology to explore the intersection of technology and language. Or maybe by that time, technology will be so transparent that something else generates creative ideas. In any case, I am excited to further this dialogue and to continue to make notes in the margin.
Gray, Sarah.”Israeli-born artist’s ‘nomad mind’ mixes archeology, myth.” Jweekly 17 August 2012.
Bissell, Evan. Home page.
Thurston, Baratunde, “The Future of Reading,” Fast Company, February 2013
Ingleton, Pamela, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Twitterature? Reading and Theorizing ‘Print’ Technologies in the Age of Social Media,” Technoculture,
Volume 2 (2012)
Jay-Z, Decoded, Spielgel & Grau (a division of Random House), New York, 2010
Mullen, Harryette, Sleeping with the Dictionary.
University of California Press, 2002